Ehab Ayyad is one of only a thousand or so Christians living in Gaza, which has a population of 2.3 million. This strip of land along the Mediterranean coast is run by the Islamist group Hamas and is consistently the subject of tensions and armed conflict in the region.
You might think that Ehab is living in fear of his Muslim neighbors, especially during the month of Ramadan as they are focused on their religion by fasting from sunup to sundown. But he is actually doing just the opposite.
In the hour before sunset, Gaza’s roads become choked with cars as people try to make it home to break their fast with their families. For those caught in traffic, Ehab goes car to car offering water and dates, the first thing Muslims normally eat when they end their fast. He’s been doing this for five years now.
“As a Christian, I offer my Muslim brothers dates and water as a kind of sharing because we’re living in the same homeland and we have the same blood,” he explains. “They first wondered how a Christian is doing that, but as days went by, they got happy to see me every year. Reactions are positive and I am happy and proud.”
One of the Muslims who received one of his gifts said, “It isn’t their month and they don’t fast but they feel for us and this is something good.” A thirteen-year-old Muslim neighbor helps Ehab prepare the packages.
“On our holidays, our Muslim neighbors come to visit and congratulate us, and we do the same on their holidays,” he said.
Two ways to reach the state of Texas
A new Barna study reports that the #1 reason people of no faith doubt Christian beliefs is “the hypocrisy of religious people.” Also on the list are “the negative reputation of the Church” and “past experiences with a religious institution.”
As pastors, I’m not sure we’re the best people to counter these perceptions. It may be that unbelievers are thinking especially of people like us when they point to religious hypocrisy and past negative experiences. In addition, they view us as “paid Christians” who do what we do simply because it’s our job.
If a Christian pastor were distributing figs and water to Muslims during Ramadan, Muslims might question his motives. When a Christian with no vocational reason serves his neighbors, they are forced to consider the sincerity of his service.
In addition, there’s the simple matter of mathematics.
There happen to be 5,341 churches in the Texas Baptist Convention (my personal denomination). Let’s assume that each of them has a pastor and that each of these pastors wins ten people to Christ this year. This would mean that 53,410 people would become followers of Jesus in 2023. This would be wonderful, but in a state of more than twenty-nine million people, it would constitute less than 0.2 percent of the Texas population.
Now let’s do this differently. Let’s assume that just one pastor in our state wins one person to Christ today and that the two of them each win one person to Christ tomorrow. Let’s continue the assumption: the four each win one the next day, so there are now eight believers. The eight each win one the next day, so there are sixteen, and so on. How many days would it take to reach our state?
In that time, the believers would total 33,554,432, exceeding our state’s population.
In thirty-three days, the number is 8,589,934,592, exceeding the planet’s population.
Beware privatization and professionalism
We know that pastors and teachers are called to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). We know that leading our people to lead people to Christ is the only way we will successfully impact our culture with the gospel.
Here’s the problem: many of our people don’t measure our success in the same way.
I have been a pastor for nearly forty years. In all that time, I have yet to have the first conversation with the first church member who says something like, “I wish you would do more to equip us to reach people for Christ.” For many, our sermons and other acts of ministry are a means to their ends. We are employees of consumers measured by the degree to which the consumers like what their employees do.
A former staff member of mine put it crudely but effectively: “Most Christians come to church to get what they can, can what they get, and sit on their can.”
Part of this is the privatization of Christianity that our culture has insisted upon for decades. The separation of church and state has become the separation of faith and state. Many Christians think it is insensitive, intolerant, and perhaps even illegal to “impose” their faith on their neighbors.
Another problem is the professionalism of Christianity that many of our churches (and pastors) have insisted upon. We are the experts here. This is our job. It’s our members’ job to pay our salaries and watch us perform. Or so they think. (And so some of us think as well.)
“You can’t commend what you don’t cherish”
Of all the ways we could respond, I’ve become convinced lately that the most foundational is also the simplest: Christians need Christ.
We need a personal, intimate, transforming relationship with the living Lord Jesus. The more we know him, the more we will want to make him known. The more his Spirit controls us, the more his Spirit will give us his heart for the lost.
When we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we will love our neighbor as ourselves.
John Piper famously said, “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”
He explained: “Worship is the goal and the fuel of missions.” Piper added: “Seeking the worship of the nations is fueled by the joy of our own worship. You can’t commend what you don’t cherish. You can’t proclaim what you don’t prize. Worship is the fuel and the goal of missions.”
What can we do to help those we serve love Jesus so much that they will pay any price to help others love him?
Let’s make the question even more personal: What can you and I do to love Jesus so much that we will pay any price to help others love him?